Living in a Walmart parking lot. Cold, alone, ignored.
This has been a reality for many local residents who have fallen on difficult times.
When all hope seemed to be lost for a change, for a chance, Michelle Stewart, Marianne, and Rachel Lanoue stepped in and their mission to help complete strangers began.
The women said their initiative started when they noticed a post on the Riverside bulletin board bringing attention to the people living in their vehicles in the nearby Walmart parking lot.
That’s when curiosity peaked. Marianne and her daughter Rachel went to the lot where they found people of all ages trying to survive, meeting Stewart in the process of looking further into the situation. Asking around for ways to help, Stewart and the Lanoue’s were told handing out gift cards to local fast-food restaurants would be beneficial.
“I reached out to my friends on Facebook and asked for gift cards, and when I talked to my daughter about it, she said she’d help with the gift cards, but ‘these people will still be hungry next week’ and it really blew the wind out of my sails,” said Stewart. “She was right, and it made me think, with help, we could feed seven people living in this parking lot. So first, we brought them sleeping bags, clothing, and non-perishable foods.”
Stewart brought the idea of making freshly made hot meals regularly up to Marianne and Rachel, who agreed it was something they should try.
They then turned to social media, asking anyone and everyone if they would be interested in making meals that would be delivered to the people living in the parking lot.
Support poured in, and they brought more meals back. That’s where they met James.
“I cried when I left that parking lot, he was in such bad shape and I was so heartbroken,” said Marianne. “I would have brought him to my house at that point that he couldn’t walk and there’s no way to get into my house without climbing upstairs.”
His condition stayed in Stewart’s mind as well as they continued bringing food and supplies to the lot.
“His legs were swollen and infected, I was really worried for him,” said Stewart. “That’s when a gentleman named PJ from LaSalle saw the post and he reached out because he had an empty bedroom. So he invited James to come live with him. It’s been really nice to know he is in a safe place.”
The setup is only temporary because the house James is in has been sold, but the opportunity has given James some well-needed rest and warmth.
Through it all, Rachel has become close with James, visiting with him as much as she can. He will be spending the Easter holiday with her and her family because now, he is family.
After sharing James’ story, more people have reached out asking for help as well – not just those living in the parking lot. The selfless kindness provided by residents has given these people in need a new source of faith in humanity, carrying them through to another day comfortably. Some residents have also continued dropping off gift cards for food, gas, and other necessities as well.
“It’s wonderful how much this has expanded,” said Stewart. “The amount of support from LaSalle has been amazing. People are cooking him a meal every day, most are cooking enough to last several days, and they’re delivering it to his home, they’re offering to buy him groceries. It’s been marvelous seeing how much people in LaSalle care.”
Stewart said one thing she wants people to take away from this story is the knowledge of how easily and often these people go ignored.
“We need more fixed income housing, people can’t afford to live in this area,” said Stewart. “We’ve had some judgemental people comment saying these people in need should be going out and getting jobs, or because they’re elderly, they should be able to afford basic living … Not everyone is fortunate enough or physically capable of living as others do. Even if they could buy a house, not many of them could afford to keep it with the current cost of living. Despite the negatives of the situation, it’s nice to know that there are still people with compassion. It’s been an amazing and fulfilling journey.”
Marianne said there is a ‘big void’ in the area of the Canada Pension Plan and Ontario Disability Support Program.
“The bottom line is there’s a big problem in terms of recipients of CPP and the ODSP. All of these benefits are here and these people still can’t afford both food and rent,” said Marianne. “This is the reality these people looked at during the pandemic. Our government basically set a baseline of $2,000 a month but yet these people are getting half of that. That’s awful. I don’t see any politician trying to change it and I think the problem is gonna get bigger.”
Since moving into a home, Stewart said the help and care James has received has made him look 20 years younger. His legs have healed, and Stewart said she finally saw him stand up for the first time. James will be moving into a campground once the season starts, and is still in need of essentials for when he moves in. He has also applied for gear to income.
“He once told me he felt like he was a nobody before all this, that nobody noticed him for two years,” said Stewart. “He felt like he was in the dark. He said one thing he’s learned from this is that people really do care. He said, now when he goes somewhere, he put my head up proudly, he would never do that before. So it’s almost like, he feels like he’s gotten some dignity back.”
As for James, he said he considers himself one of the lucky ones who wants to pay it forward any way he can.
“I wasn’t expecting anything but everyone came out to help me with everything and I really appreciate it,” said James. “I didn’t really want to talk to anyone before this, people heading in my direction would turn around and walk the other way when they saw me, and it didn’t bother me. But now I’ve changed, I went from being by myself all the time to really enjoying life again. I don’t have a lot, but if anyone ever needs a ride anywhere, needs someone to talk to I’m always around.”
The Facebook group Feeding Riverside helps people navigate asking for help, as well as volunteer their time for making meals, delivering food and supplies to the people in need.
The group has over 650 volunteers, with the numbers steadily rising. The mission of the group states the group’s intentions include providing a warm daily meal, along with a dose of hope to the individuals who are struggling and have been marginalized by society.
Marianne said she wants others to forget their idea of what a homeless person would be, and focus on the fact these are people in need of assistance.
“One of the problems of homelessness is there is a stigma,” said Marianne. “I think we all imagine a homeless person as someone who is strung out on drugs or has a multitude of other issues. Of course, it’s not acceptable for anyone to be living on the streets … We’re all human beings. Clearly, we have a massive amount of work to do in the area of mental health and addiction too. But there are a lot of homeless people who do not fit that profile. They are simply people who are down on their luck … victims of circumstance. I feel like there are a lot of people who are five minutes away from that happening to them.”
Additionally, because of the response and support the group has received from the community, they are also hoping to provide support to families who may be struggling.
“The three of us could not have done what we’ve done without the 650 people who’ve joined, stepped up, donated, cooked, and cared. This has been a real community effort,” said Marianne.
Anyone interested in volunteering with the group, or wants to cook a meal for someone in need, they are welcome to join the Feeding Riverside Facebook group and contact group admins Marianne and Rachel Lanoue or Michelle Stewart.